As the recent heatwave has shown us, climate change is here and the effects are already being felt but what can we do as gardeners?
In this months blog, Becky Searle offers some practical advice on how our gardens, balconies, allotments and window sills can genuinely make a difference.
She explains how, with a tiny bit of outside space, we can even create carbon sinks in our own back-yard!
Becky is a soil ecologist who inspires prople to grow salads and flowers, make compost (yes, even on a balcony) and store carbon....read on and you too can become a carbon-storage champion...
Our gardens, balconies, and windowsills are an extension of ourselves. Just like the clothes we wear and the cars we drive, they are an expression of who we are. And how we choose to use them, can have a profound effect on the world around us.
No matter how small, they fit into a larger system; fragmented and separated by fences and walls, but a patchwork of potential, nonetheless.
With the dark cloud of climate change hanging over us, dark and ominous it is easy to feel helpless. Nothing has the potential to make us feel powerless quite like the power of nature. Heatwaves and wildfires, storms and floods have become a regular feature of our news bulletins.
It can be deeply frustrating watching our politicians, business owners and billionaires Diligently ignoring the impending danger. We can only watch as they – literally – add fuel to the fire of climate change. But more minds are beginning to change, and the younger generations are becoming fierce, and passionate about doing something. But the swing towards enlightenment, and the subsequent jump needed towards making real-life changes is happening at all too slow a pace. It feels like when you are trying to run away from something in your dream, willing your body to move, but you just get more tired and heavy. And this time, by the time we wake up, it will be too late.
If you are lucky enough to have a garden, balcony or even a windowsill though, you are the custodian of a small piece of this world. In your little patch, no matter how small, you are the one that gets to decide, and gets to make changes for the better.
There are a few simple steps we can use to not only help future-proof our gardens but also contribute towards tackling climate change by creating our very own personalised carbon sinks.
Firstly, we should not underestimate the impact that growing our own food has on our carbon footprint. Michael Pollan estimates in his book “In Defence of Food” that for each calorie of food that reaches a plate in the western world, approximately 10-12 calories of fossil fuels have been used to get it there. By growing our own food, we can bypass the transport, processing and packaging phases that are endemic in most food production. If we choose to grow organic food, we can also eliminate the need for chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. These are not only disastrous for our wildlife and natural spaces, our soils, and our waterways, but also require enormous amounts of fossil fuels to produce. So, if you’re growing your own food, harvesting it, carrying it home in a basket and eating it fresh you are making a huge difference already. Even some salad leaves grown on the windowsill can make a big difference, particularly if we all did it.
Another powerful way that gardeners tackle climate change from their gardens – sometimes unknowingly – is by building organic matter. Organic matter is by definition anything carbon based. Plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, converting it into carbohydrates (made of carbon) and oxygen. The oxygen is released through their leaves and the carbohydrates remain, fuelling the plants’ growth. Then of course, everything on the planet eats these carbohydrates in one form or another, either directly or indirectly, making every living thing carbon based.
By composting in our gardens, we are building organic matter. The plants we grow are constantly drawing down carbon dioxide. Instead of being burned and released back into the atmosphere it is broken down into a concentrated form which in turn feeds lots more life and helps support our plants. Unfortunately, when we dig our soils, we release a lot of carbon dioxide. And ploughing (large scale digging), is yet another way that farming adds to global warming. The reason that digging causes carbon dioxide to be released is a process called oxidisation. When pure, unstable carbon is exposed to oxygen the particles can join creating carbon dioxide. This happens on a huge scale in peat bogs that are mined for their carbon rich soils.
If we are continually adding carbon to our gardens however, and not disturbing our soils our gardens become more and more carbon rich. We are in essence farming carbon and storing it away safely, turning it into trees and fruit and habitat.
The other way that we can help fight against the effects of climate change is by helping our insects. Insects are essential for all life on earth. Their services as pollinators, pest control agents, decomposers and housekeepers make them indispensable. Yet the continued pressure of climate change is forcing them to move to high latitudes. They seek climates where they can thrive, but their plant foods cannot move with them, at least not so fast. Many arrive in cooler climes only to starve because the plants they are specifically adapted to live on are simply not there.
We can help with this predicament from our gardens too. By planting plenty of diversity, allowing weeds to grow in certain areas, leaving a patch of long grass and not using chemicals in our gardens we can create ideal habitat for migrating insects. We may not be able to provide exactly what they all need, but by creating abundance and diversity in our gardens we are doing the best we possibly can.
Finally, we should endeavour to make our gardens carbon negative. We have spoken about creating our very own carbon sink, but to be truly carbon neutral, or negative, we must ensure that we are not exploiting other carbon sinks, even unknowingly. One huge, and by now quite well-known carbon sink is peat. By using peat in our gardens, we are facilitating the release of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from peat bogs (for more on this read my blog post on peat!). Moreover, peat is used in many nurseries. We should therefore aim to grow our own plants, from swapped, saved or open-pollinated seeds, wherever possible. Or find a local supplier of good quality, peat-free plants.
In essence, our gardens can be powerful tools to help fight climate change, and to mitigate some of its disastrous effects. With just a little awareness and the drive to do something important, you can make a real difference – whilst enjoying your garden!
Becky is an ecologist and kitchen gardener passionate about growing her own food at home in a sustainable, organic way. Visit her website here.